With Alabama’s 45-40 defeat of Clemson in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game, we can reflect on a phenomenal season full of ups, downs, highlights, and lowlights. We can also look ahead at what is to come in 2016. Here’s a never-too-early look at the race for next season’s College Football Playoff.
As long as Nick Saban is the head football coach in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide will be on the national championship radar. Saban has stated that he hasn’t even thought about retirement and it doesn’t appear that he will leave Alabama for another job. That means that he has already started planning how to win a fifth national title in eight years. The Tide will need to replace Jake Coker as quarterback and will likely have to replace Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and championship game MVP TE O.J. Howard. Both will likely jump to the NFL. The entire front seven of the nation’s best defense might be gone too, if players like DT A-Shawn Robinson declare for the 2016 NFL Draft. Even so, never count a Saban-coached team out of the race.
The Tigers have what appears to be the best shot at returning to the title game. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had a record 478 total yards in the championship game, returns for his junior year and will be a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Running back Wayne Gallman returns along with three-fifths of the offensive line and the four top wide receivers in the program. The defense could return as many as eight starters depending upon what defensive backs Jayron Kearse and Mackensie Alexander do concerning the NFL. Head coach Dabo Swinney has Clemson in a good spot and it looks like it will continue in 2016.
Injuries ravaged the Irish during the 2015 season, yet head coach Brian Kelly still guided Notre Dame to a 10-3 record. A victory in the season finale against Stanford may have even given the Irish a shot at the CFP. We’ll never know, but there is reason for optimism heading into the 2016 season. Quarterback Malik Zaire, who broke his ankle in game two, returns along with Deshone Kizer, who took over for Zaire and threw for 2,600 yards and ran for 520 more. Kizer accounted for 31 total touchdowns and returns along with RB Tarean Folston and tight ends Durham Smythe and Alize Jones. Jones stepped in for Smythe who also suffered a season-ending injury. While the Irish will have the talent to get to the CFP, they will also have the favorable schedule. They have just three true road games next year. The opener with Texas will set the tone.
There is no doubt that the Art Briles system works. The Bears plugged five different players into the QB position in the Russell Athletic Bowl and rushed for a bowl-record 645 yards…and they played without leading rusher Shock Linwood! Linwood will return along with Johnny Jefferson, who ran for 299 yards in the bowl game. Briles will have QB Seth Russell back from a neck injury that ended his season along with sophomore Jarrett Stidham who stepped in for Russell and didn’t miss a beat. The Bears will lose All-American WR Corey Coleman, but they will welcome 6-4, 210-pound Ishmael Zamora to take his place. Baylor will lose some talent in the defensive line but return four of five defensive backs. The talent is there for another Big 12 championship and CFP run.
If it’s not Baylor in the Big 12, it is surely Oklahoma. When the two teams meet on November 12, it will likely decide the conference champion. The Sooners, the 2015 Big 12 champ, return a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball. The offense, which finished third in the nation averaging 45.8 points per game, is led by QB Baker Mayfield who will surely be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon will return behind an offensive line that will return three starters. Wide receiver Sterling Shephard will be gone, but Jarvis Baxter and Dede Westbrook will be back. The defense, which was 21st in the nation in scoring defense (20.8 points per game), returns six starters including All-Big 12 cornerback Jordan Thomas. The problem for the Sooners will be the schedule. They face Houston to start the season and welcome Ohio State to Norman in week three of the season. TCU and Texas follow to start conference play.
BEST OF THE REST
You could make a claim for American Athletic Conference champion Houston. The Cougars, 13-1 last year, will return QB Greg Ward Jr., much of their offense, and much of a surprisingly good defense (just ask Florida State). And speaking of the Seminoles, they will return every single offensive starter. Running back Dalvin Cook is as good as they come and FSU is accustomed to winning. Will 2016 be the year Michigan re-enters the national championship picture? The defense was phenomenal last year and the offense will return four of five offensive lineman, leading rusher De’Veon Smith, and one of the nation’s best tight ends in Jake Butt.